In theaters right now, there is a biopic based on some aspects of the life of Harriet Tubman. As a character in history, Harriet Tubman has always held a special place in my heart because she refused to be a slave. And according to legend, she refused to let anyone who said they wanted to follow her to freedom to back out of that decision. My respect for her is deep and her legacy reminds me that I must do my best to live as awakened a life as possible. She is the quintessential Strong Black Woman, the super woman, because she had to be. For centuries in this country, Harriet’s daughters have lived under conditions that demanded that they be strong too. So much so that there is the societal expectation that to be a Black Woman means that they must be strong at all costs. And the cost is often way too high.
I recently wrote about the idea of Mastering Our Greatest Weakness. In the post, I posit that for many of us, our greatest weakness is our strength pushed too far. In writing about the Legacy of the StrongBlackWoman, I am continuing that conversation based on the work of Chanequa Walker-Barnes in her book, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.
In her book, she writes:
Perhaps the superwoman syndrome is the flip side of our will to survive when taken to an unhealthy extreme. We are so accustomed to toughing it out, being self-reliant, being dependable for others, concerned with the salvation and the wholeness of family, friends, community, , and strangers that we become ill from lack of self-nurture and sometimes die early deaths as a result. The same will for survival that enables us to persevere through pain and oppression can also numb us to the realities of pain and illness if we are not grounded in God as Spirit who loves us, body, and soul as well as our loved ones. There is a thin line between survival and denial.
I started reading Walker-Barnes’s book after taking my own daughters on a civil rights pilgrimage to Atlanta and parts of Alabama. I made the decision to do this because where we live is not diverse and I felt that they would benefit from some depth in an aspect of their identity and from being around more people who looked like them. Being raised by mostly StrongBlackWomen–a deliberate moniker without the spaces, that Walker-Barnes uses in her book to frame that social construct of Black Woman identity in the American context–I know all to well the pressure placed on the shoulders of far too many Black women in our society. And when I look at my daughters and think about what they will be subjected to if they aren’t conscious, I know that as a father I have to get in front of it the best I can. This post is for them and the women I hope they find the freedom to become.
I didn’t have anyone directly in front of me to take the emotional, psychological, and physical hits of waking up to some of the challenges of being Black in America. So for a long time, I made up for it by retreating into the world of books and banishing the value of vulnerability and emotional intelligence. I don’t blame anyone for that. But I am not about to close my eyes when it comes to my children. For me, that means getting educated as much as a man can about what they may face and to humble myself and sit at the feet of some of the masterful women I am blessed to know who are reclaiming parts of themselves for their own health and well being.
Recently I had the opportunity to have a public conversation with two of those great woman, Sandy Rodgers and Zaidie Crowe, on Sandy’s online radio show, Life, Love, and Wellness (click link to listen). In the call we candidly spoke about the StrongBlackWoman concept and how it was established as well as how the societal expectation’s–and sometimes exploitation–that Black Women should live into this narrative at all costs, can at times contribute to a disproportionate burden being placed upon their shoulders.
I could say more, but I think that Sojourner Truth said it best in her short address at the 1851 Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio.
AIN’T I A WOMAN? by Sojourner Truth
Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that ‘twixt the negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon. But what’s all this here talking about?https://www.feminist.com/resources/artspeech/genwom/sojour.htm
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?
Then they talk about this thing in the head; what’s this they call it? [member of audience whispers, “intellect”] That’s it, honey. What’s that got to do with women’s rights or negroes’ rights? If my cup won’t hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn’t you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?
Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.
If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back , and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.
Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain’t got nothing more to say.
If you listen to the audio, you will hear a rich exploration of the legacy of being the StrongBlackWoman. But Zaidie, Sandy, and I did not by any means exhaust the subject and will be continuing the conversation at a future date. So if you have questions or thoughts, please share them.